Protect Your Spirit When on the Receiving End of Negativity

Portrait of teenage girl wearin spectacles against dark background

“I hate, hate, hate her! I can’t stand to be around her! All she does is criticize me and my mom! She never thinks that anything that we do is good enough…and she’s always got something negative to say.” I was shocked and surprised by the force of the feelings that Desiree was expressing. Desiree, a seventeen-year old high school junior was seeing me because of her anger and depression. She had an explosive and dysfunctional relationship with her toxic grandmother. Her grandmother had strained relationships with everyone in her life, had no friends, had been divorced twice, and couldn’t keep a consistent job. Desiree and her mom had been living with her grandmother after her mom’s divorce. They had only been there for three months, but already things were at a crisis point—like a: call-the-police-crisis-point. Desiree already had one strike against her and definitely didn’t need the police getting involved in her anger management again.

Desiree’s mother agreed, and knowing that things were bad, when the divorce was finalized I began to see Desiree, on the advice of Desiree’s attorney and juvenile judge. Desiree was part of a juvenile court diversion program, trying to keep Desiree out of serious legal charges and youth detention center. It was going well. Desiree was honest, engaged in the counseling, working hard, and taking it all seriously, but Desiree was very stubborn, strong-willed, and refused to listen to advice.

Desiree’s mother was a sweet, quiet, kind, and unselfish person. She was a hard worker–working two jobs–and trying to save enough money to afford a place of their own, in the hopes that this would help to defuse Desiree’s explosiveness. Desiree also had a part-time job and although she did well at school, (she was on the Honor Roll) she couldn’t keep any friends.

Anytime she began to make friends, she generally seemed to push people away by being critical, negative, or emotionally volatile and angry. Desiree was totally confused and frustrated that she couldn’t manage to keep any healthy relationships. Desiree refused to forgive her grandmother, stating “she’s the one who’s grown…why should I be the one who does all the forgiving?!”

What Do You Nurse?

So Desiree continued to nurse her spirit of bitterness, anger, frustration, and unforgiveness. But this attitude seemed to be poisoning all her other relationships. She was so anxious all the time and emotionally volatile that she couldn’t take any sort of constructive criticism, and even when people weren’t directing comments to or about her, she tended to make everything about her and take things personally. Also, Desiree tended to hold onto grudges and refused to let stuff go. She tended to make small things into bigger deals than they really were. Even a small slight done towards her tended to ruin her week; she just couldn’t let it go. It quickly got to the point that whenever she entered the room, no one wanted to be around her. And slowly but surely, this affected her mental health. How could it not?

Forgive to Live

People will say and do things to hurt and injure us; when this happens (and it will always happen sooner rather than later) we need to forgive them—quickly and wholeheartedly. Forgiveness is something that we shouldn’t think about or even be given an opportunity to deny. After all, forgiveness is something we do, first, for ourselves—and then for others. Dr. Dick Tibbitts, author of Forgive to Live, demonstrated that people who choose not to forgive have more physical and emotional problems in their lives, and proved that there is a link between consistently practicing forgiveness and better health.

When it comes to relationships, we all have people like Desiree’s grandmother in our lives; the only question we have to answer is: how will we allow it to affect us?

Jesus made this observation:

“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor’ ” (Matthew 7:1-5, MSG).

Did you pick up what Jesus was putting down? Jesus was basically saying that it’s natural and normal for humans to be nit-picky, petty—the question is: in what direction will we choose to focus our focus? If we focus on others, it’ll end up badly, but if we turn the magnifying lens on ourselves, then this is the most healthy and helpful.

Jesus applied this principle to prayer, when He warned:
“In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part” (Matthew 6: 14, 15, MSG). Here’s the bottom line: if we judge others, have a critical attitude, hold grudges, and close our heart to forgiveness, then our heart will be closed to receive God’s forgiveness for ourselves.

“Prune-Person!”

I call it living the life of a “Prune-person”–you know, someone who always looks like they’ve been sucking on a lemon; with a permanent scowl on their face. It’s like they’re living their life, always ready and expecting something bad to happen in their life. The reality is that if this is what they’re expecting in their life, then this is what they will get—because this is the only thing that they’ve conditioned themselves to see. Even if something positive happens, they’ll tend to see this as the exception, rather than the rule.

What Comes Around

In fact, the Bible also proves this to be true.  According to Hindu philosophy, every action (karma) has a reaction or outcome. When an individual’s actions are positive or selfless, and righteous, they will experience positive effects or rewards. If their actions, on the other hand, are negative, the results will be negative. The karma of an individual’s actions, positive or negative, may be experienced immediately, later in their present life, or possibly in a future life (or lives). It is important to remember that an individual’s karma is based on their thoughts, words, and actions and the choices they make.

Now, I’m a Christian and I don’t believe in karma, however, I do believe in the saying: “what comes around goes around!” I’ve lived long enough to see this be true in my life, for the simple fact that we’re all creatures of our habits. The Bible, once again, hits the mark squarely. Check out this nugget-o-wisdom: “Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life” (Galatians 6:7, 8, MSG).

Right?! Logically, we all understand this to be true, but we tend to live our lives as if it isn’t. When it comes to forgiveness and holding grudges, our habits will always tell on us.

Choosing Forgiveness

So now that we know that we should forgive as a rule, how can we ensure that we don’t end up like Desiree, or her grandmother? I mean, surely God doesn’t want us to constantly spend our lives sweeping up the shattered pieces of our broken and bruised hearts? No, He doesn’t, but He also doesn’t want us to be so shell-shocked from our relationship disasters that we cut ourselves off from any and all relationships. Surely there’s a healthy balance?

To value health and wellbeing, we should always choose forgiveness, but after forgiveness, we need to decide whether we will be in relationship, which is reconciliation.

Simply speaking, if that other person has proven themselves to be emotionally healthy, not abusive or toxic, then it’s worth it to work hard on that relationship. You’re not perfect; no one is, and if you spend your life waiting on someone to be perfect before you will choose to connect with them, the reality is that you’ll never connect with anyone.

There is Biblical wisdom on this issue. You have to focus on rehearsing the positive versus the negative. Instead of allowing your mind to naturally gravitate back towards the hurt, choose to refocus on forgiving others and remembering and being thankful for the reality of God’s forgiveness of your own sin:

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31, 32, NLT).

Mother Teresa, an Albanian-Indian Catholic Nun and missionary famously said: “People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. . . For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

“Stinking Thinking!”

Realistically speaking, getting over a hurt relationship will take some time and energy. You’re going to have to focus on focusing on your thoughts. You’re going to have to focus on learning to think differently. The fact is that we are all thinking about all sorts of things all the time. Psychologists and counselors call the habit of learning to hone in on what we’re thinking about, in-real-time, as “mindfulness”; now before you decide to compose an ugly email to me, calm down! I’m not trying to turn you into some follower of eastern New Age philosophy. Realistically speaking, problems come about because of a lack of balance in mindfulness; either people are not clued in at all and can’t “read the room” so to speak and are totally disconnected from what they’re thinking and feeling (like Desiree’s grandmother) or they’re overly focused on what they’re thinking and feeling, and allowing it to overwhelm them (like Desiree). Again, the operative word is balance. You might be interested to note that the Bible actually has a lot to say about this issue of being hyper-aware of our thoughts and our thinking.

Check out this observation: the world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way—never have and never will. The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity (2 Corinthians 10:5, MSG).

Simple, but Not Easy

Simply put: if someone hurts you? Choose to forgive. Think about how much God has forgiven you. Then, when your mind wants to (naturally) turn back to the hurt and you want to (naturally) focus on revenge, hurt, anger, or bitterness (all are symptoms of holding a grudge), choose—again—to forgive. And repeat, and repeat, etc. The process is simple, but not easy. I promise you that, as someone who struggles with anxiety and naturally being pessimistic, this is something that you can learn to do consistently and successfully.

Your Life’s Ambition

At the beginning of my time together with my clients I always ask them what they want—not just out of our time together during counseling, but more importantly: what they want out of their lives. Usually the responses I receive all center around people telling me that they want to live a happy life that’s free from pain and sadness; guess what: Jesus wants that for you too…way more than you do! In fact, Jesus wants to give you “ . . . a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10, NLT). Do you want that, too? Forgiveness is the way forward.
God’s way is the best way.
Follow Him and you can’t lose!

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